The Times They Are A-Changin’!

I recently read an article by a Dr Bill Tenny-Brittian called ‘Understanding the role of your pastor‘. Although it was written in an American context, some of the author’s observations made sense to me. He describes the 1950s as the ‘golden years’ of the church. ‘Back then,’ he says, ‘”everyone” went to church.’ Of course, that was never really true, but in the post-war era most people either went to church or felt they should. (I occasionally come across this now: I can bump into someone in the supermarket and their first words to me are, “I’m sorry I’ve not been to church recently”.)

Back in those days, church offered just one strand of worship. In the Church of England it was always from the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, there were ‘High church’ and ‘Low church’ ways of doing it, but once you had chosen your style you stuck with it. Children were offered Sunday School but there was no catering to different age groups when it came to worship in church.

Back in the ’50s, the pastor’s primary job was to ensure everyone in the church was well cared for.

The pastor or vicar had to make sure that everything ticked along and that everyone was happy. The vicar spent his time (it was always ‘him’ in those days) in his study making sure things ran smoothly (and writing sermons), or attending meetings to make sure things were going well. The rest of his time was spent visiting church members in hospitals, nursing homes or in their own homes.

No one worried about church growth back then. No one was worrying about growing their church because in the 1950s the members pretty much took care of church growth.

Families came to church and stayed in church. “The church was on autopilot. The pastor took care of the flock and the flock multiplied biologically.” The author then says this:

In many (most) churches, if 1950 ever comes back the congregation is ready!

But being ready for the 1950s is no help for the situation in which we now find ourselves. So what happened? In a word, the 1960s! That decade was a time of enormous change. As Bob Dylan put it in 1963, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. Dylan wrote on behalf of a generation that no longer followed in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. ‘Mothers and fathers’ didn’t understand their children. They should get out of the way, he sang.

For generations, parents have been used to their children going through a rebellious phase, including not going to church. They have assumed that their children would grow out of it and find their way back. But that has not happened. Today’s children have been brought up by parents (and grandparents) who have little or no experience of church. And, no, they don’t feel guilty about it! Going to church is no longer felt to be a duty or something that ‘most people’ do. For many, church is a leisure activity for those who like that sort of thing, an optional extra that gets squeezed out by shopping, sport or house-cleaning.

And that’s alright! I wouldn’t want to go back to an era when people went to church because they felt they had to, because it was the respectable thing to do. I want people to come to church because it is what they have chosen to do. Because they feel welcomed, accepted and loved. Because they know their need of God. Because they want to be equipped to serve God in the week ahead.

Dr Tenny-Brittian’s view is that the pastor’s role today is not simply to look after church people, keeping them happy. He says, and I agree, that the pastor’s role is biblically rooted in Ephesians 4:11-13:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)

He writes:

Notice the pastor’s primary role is to prepare the church members to do works of service, that is, the ministry of the church. It’s the church members’ job to do most of the things the 1950s pastor took care of. It’s the pastor’s job to recruit, train, deploy, and coach other church leaders to do all those ministries.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I will give up visiting church members at home or in hospital: that’s still an important part of my role. But we need to get away from the idea that the vicar’s job is to keep church members happy! The vicar’s job is to equip the church for two main purposes:

    Taking care of one another and

    Reaching out to the wider community.

Which is not to say that I won’t be doing those things as well, but think how much more we could do if the whole church took responsibility for pastoral care and outreach! An important part of my job, therefore, is to equip church people to do the work of the church!

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “The Times They Are A-Changin’!

  1. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for a great reinterpretation of my blog for the COE. I was stationed outside of Ipswich for four years back in the 70s and have a great love for both church and country. I appreciate so much the work you’re doing there in the wild west of England.


    • That’s very kind of you, Bill! I came across your article when someone posted a link on Facebook. As I said, although the context is different, it’s true that many church people are unaware of how different the world is in which we minister, from the world in which they grew up. Blessings to you from sunny England!


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