by Steve Clark

How can pastoral leaders and pastoral workers help Christians stay alive spiritually as Christians in an increasingly hostile culture? Steve Clark, a leader in the Sword of the Spirit, considers pastoral priorities in a secular age.

This article is adapted from his presentation at the 1986 Allies for Faith and Renewal Conference. Valuable wisdom at that time, urgently needed today.

At the beginning of 1812, Napoleon ruled most of Europe. He had defeated all the armies that had opposed him. He had provoked the resignation of the last Holy Roman Emperor and had then married his daughter. He held the pope captive. He had everything he wanted, except for three “details”: Britain, Spain, and Russia. In that year, he decided to invade Russia.

Napoleon gathered an army, marched into Russia, and trounced the Russians in a couple of major battles. The tsar’s army made a last stand before Moscow but suffered a major defeat. By October 1812 Napoleon sat in Moscow surrounded by an undefeated army, the most powerful man the world had seen for a very long time.

Then a fire broke out in Moscow. No one knows how the fire started, although most think a Russian deliberately set it. The fire burned much of the city. By the time it was out, the army’s food supplies and winter quarters were gone. Napoleon was forced to abandon the city. Heading west through the Russian winter with the tsar’s troops at his heels, Napoleon’s grand army disintegrated. Within two months of his greatest victory, his army, the most powerful in Europe, had virtually ceased to exist. Napoleon struggled on for two more years, but after Moscow he was a defeated man. The reason was not a loss on a battlefield, but the fact that he had been unable to keep his army alive.

A Lesson for Today
There is a moral here for us. My subject is “pastoral priorities in a secular age.” The word “pastoral” comes from the Latin word for “shepherd” – a person who cares for the sheep. The simplest way to describe the care a shepherd gives his sheep is to say that he keeps them alive. This is also the simplest way of saying what a pastoral leader does for people: he cares for them so that they stay alive as Christians. If they do not stay alive as Christians, there is nothing they can accomplish.

Many of us in Christian leadership are intent on affecting society with Christian values. If we are to do this, we must first pay attention to pastoral priorities. How will our efforts at social influence do any good if, while we are trying to affect society, Christians themselves are losing their Christian life? How can we have a Christian impact on society if we are unable to keep the people of God alive as Christians?

A few years ago Roman Catholics in the United States were pleased about the growing Catholic vote and the number of Catholics winning political positions. The assumption was that Catholics’ understanding of social justice would be better represented in government. How ironic, then, a couple of years later, to see the Cardinal Archbishop of New York confronting the Catholic governor of New York and also a Catholic candidate for vice-president who did not quite line up with the Roman Catholic positions on abortion. It is fine to have Christians in political positions – if they take Christian stands and act in a Christian way. But if they have been “evangelized” by the secular culture, their presence will not matter very much.

What Does the Goal Mean?
“Keeping Christians alive”: what does this pastoral goal mean? First and foremost, it means helping men and women to be alive spiritually, to have spiritual life, divine life. They need to be united with God in Christ, living the life of grace.

It also means helping people follow the Christian way of life day by day. A Christian cannot live any way he chooses. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Paul saw an intrinsic connection between the way Christians live and their eligibility to inherit the kingdom of God. He identified observable kinds of behavior as indicators of whether people were alive in Christ: how were they living, what were they doing, what were they avoiding?

Finally, “keeping Christians alive” means seeing that they are able to pass on the Christian way of life to their children.

If we do not keep the Christian people alive in these ways, then all our efforts at evangelistic outreach and social influence will be buildings without foundations. If Christians do not have spiritual life, do not follow the Christian way of life day by day, and do not succeed at handing on that way of life to their children, then the Christian people will be like Napoleon’s grand army – no matter how vigorous and successful some of our efforts may be.

Losing Our Way of Life
There is evidence that many good Christian things are happening in the United States: a growth of interest in Christianity, a small growth in Sunday morning attendance, vitality of varying degrees in the more theologically conservative Christian groups. But statistics clearly show a serious decline in people’s living the Christian way of life in regard to acquiring and using material wealth, in regard to sexuality and family life (fornication, divorce, abortion, and the rest), and in many other ways, Christians are increasingly indistinguishable in the secular culture they live in. Less and less are they living the way of life that is integral to what they are as Christians.

In this light, what should our pastoral priorities be? What is most important for us to do to help the Christian people stay alive as Christians in the midst of an increasingly secular culture? I would propose six priorities. The first three are familiar to all of us, and I will merely mention them in order to keep the right perspective before us. I will comment on the latter three at greater length.

The first priority is bringing people, including those who are Christians in little more than name, to full and complete conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

The second priority is a spiritual renewal, that is, leading people into a lively, worshipful relationship with God, into a spiritual experience of him, into the life and power of the Spirit.

The third priority is giving people teaching that grounds them in historic Christian belief and protects them from the unsound ideas flowing out in the world and through the churches as well.

Every pastoral leader needs to see that these needs are met in the people he is caring for, if they are to have and maintain life as Christians.

Less Familiar Dynamics
The other priorities have to do with what we might call “underlying dynamics.”

The value of identifying underlying dynamics was illustrated by an attempt I made a couple of years ago at landscaping. I have had a little experience in gardening. My father made me weed, mow the lawn, and so on. So I thought I knew something about transplanting. Several shrubs had to be moved from one side of the yard to another; I dug new holes for them, carried them over, put dirt on them, and gave them a little water.

A friend of mine, whose father is a nurseryman and who actually knows something about transplanting, took a look at my efforts and told me, “They aren’t going to live.” He offered to help. He did things that it never occurred to me to do. He waited until the proper time to transplant the shrubs. Then he did something with the roots to prepare them. He fertilized them. After he transplanted them, he doused them with water day after day. Needless to say, my friend’s transplants are doing fine, while mine have turned to orange skeletons. I did the obvious things, but my transplants did not live. My friend was successful because he understood the underlying dynamics of maintaining life.

Those of us with pastoral responsibilities often do not see underlying dynamics. We fail to notice what is undermining the Christian life of people in our care. In recent years, for instance, many of us have watched middle-aged couples in our churches and communities who have raised their children, and who seem to be happy enough, suddenly get divorced. Why? we wonder. In the past, such couples would not have gotten divorced. Something must have been going on that did not appear on the surface. If we had been able to spot it, we might have helped them, and they might still be married. Now they have become part of the divorce statistics, and it is too late to do anything.

Let us look at three underlying dynamics of Christian living and the pastoral priorities that they lead to.

Environments
The first dynamic is the influence of social environments. An environment is simply a group of people who are together in some way. To use sociological terms, an environment is a stable social situation. In the Acts of the Apostles we are told of the church in Jerusalem that “All who believed were together” and “The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 2:44; 4:32). One of the reasons the early Christians stayed alive as Christians was that they were together, one in heart and soul, mind and spirit. They formed a Christian environment.

Consider the effects of a non-Christian social environment today – the university. We might think of virtually any university, secular or even religious.

What happens when Christian students come to the university? For the most part (although not in the case of every individual) in terms of Christian sexual morality, they will become less faithful. From the point of view of politics, they will become more liberal. In their views on social roles, they will become more feminist. Their preferences in clothing and recreation will tend to reflect current fashions on campuses across the country.

Why does this happen? Is it because of the courses the students take? The courses are a factor, but not the chief factor; the changes happen to students who study mathematics as well as to those who study psychology. The changes in outlook occur mainly through the young people’s interaction with an environment where certain values, attitudes, and behavior are accepted. The consequences of their being in such an environment are generally predictable. They tend to absorb what is accepted.

We can all verify this dynamic from our own experience. We have all been in environments – a school, a job, a platoon, a club – in which we have begun to notice that we are getting changed.

“These Are My People”
Sociologists have discovered that we tend to adopt the values, attitudes, and behavior of a social environment to the degree to which we identify with it. We are open to being affected by a group to the extent that we say, “I am one of these people. This is my group. I belong here.”

This is an important insight. By and large, most people who consider themselves Christians do not belong to Christian churches or groups that function as social environments for them. Or, if their church or group does function as an environment for them, they identify with it solely for religious purposes. They do not say, “This is my group. These are the kind of people I want to be with.” Rather they say, “For religious activities I identify with these people.” But for the values and attitudes that shape their lives, they identify with other groups of people.

It was not always this way for Christians in the United States. For instance, the urban Catholic immigrant parishes and the rural Southern Baptist congregations of the past were social environments with which members strongly identified and which, therefore, had a powerful influence on their whole lives. But as ethnic, regional, and other loyalties have weakened, especially since World War II, Protestant and Catholic churches have lost their place as the focus of Americans’ social identification. Most local church bodies function largely as service centers offering specialized religious activities and assistance rather than as centers of members’ relationships and way of life. Fewer Christians have Christian social environments with which they strongly identify; instead, they are affected by the increasingly secular social environments in which they live, study, work, and recreate.

If pastoral leaders are to help their people stay alive as Christians, one of their highest priorities should be to create effective Christian environments for them. They should bring Christians together in such a way that they identify with one another. “I belong to this group. These Christians are my people. I want to be like them.” This kind of Christian social environment needs to be strengthened where it is weak and restored where it has been lost.

Customs Versus Commandments
The second underlying dynamic has to do with the effect of patterns of social behavior on basic morality. Certain ways of doing things help us to be moral.

Orthodox Christians generally see the importance of keeping the Ten Commandments. They know that there are some things that they absolutely cannot do: murder, commit adultery, steal. But they do not see the connection between social customs and keeping the commandments. As a result they adopt social patterns that are not conducive to being moral. They do not realize that there needs to be a consistency between their fundamental moral principles and the way they live. Because they are not concerned with being consistent, they get to a point where it becomes virtually impossible for them to remain faithful to basic moral precepts. They do not know where to draw the line, and so they get themselves into trouble.

Let us take the example of the sexual revolution. In its post-1960 phase, Americans’ sexual attitudes and behavior had changed drastically. The studies indicate that sexual morality has been eroding for everybody, Christians included. Research shows that young Christians, even junior-high children from intact, churchgoing families, are joining the sexual revolution.

One reason for widespread sexual immorality among Christians is that pastors, single people, and parents accept social patterns that are inconsistent with Christian morality. They do not start the battle for sexual morality soon enough. By the time they get to the place where they make a stand for basic morality, they have already conceded so much ground that it is too late.

A hundred years ago Christians of every description would have been in complete agreement that sexual morality requires certain social customs. For example, Christians would have been united in the view that unmarried men and women should not spend much time together unless they are chaperoned. And they would have agreed that single men and women should not touch one another sexually.

Christians of a century ago would have said that these social patterns were necessary in order to keep the Ten Commandments. Therefore, they would have said these patterns were a part of sexual morality. A single man and woman spending time un-chaperoned, for example, would not have been seen as committing the most serious kind of wrongdoing, but their behavior would have been considered wrong because of its inconsistency with living a chaste life. It was crystal clear to Christians of the last century that if young, single people are allowed to spend a lot of time together, are not supervised, and are allowed to do all sorts of things in the way of touching one another, sooner or later they are going to “go all the way,” as it is sometimes termed. Social survey statistics tell us that that is exactly what happens nowadays.

The lesson is that if we draw up our battle line at the last possible point, we are likely to lose the war. We have to start much further back. We need consistency between our social patterns and our moral principles.

The same point applies to every area of morality. For example, we recognize spouses’ permanent moral responsibility to raise their children in the Christian faith. But if we also accept the self-seeking patterns of life that go along with materialistic acquisition in our increasingly secular society, then we will find that marriages disintegrate and children are not given adequate discipline and care. We will also find that Christians are having a difficult time keeping the commandments against lying and stealing.

Thus one of our pastoral priorities should be to see that in the various areas of their lives Christians are consistent, not just trying to avoid behavior that is most clearly forbidden, but keeping away from the social patterns that lead to it and are, in fact, shaped by un-Christian values. Our pastoral concern has to be not only to create Christian environments, but also to form in those environments a way of life consistent with essential moral principles.

Anti-Christian Carriers
Finally, there are the underlying dynamics of what we might call “carriers” of anti-Christian values and attitudes. The term refers to contagious diseases. Some diseases can be caught by touching things that carry the infection. If we handle them, we start getting sick. This is often predictable. If we want to stay healthy, we need to stay away from such carriers.

When I began to do pastoral work, a couple of men who had been involved in homosexual activities came to me for help. They wanted to make a break with their homosexual activities. I did not know exactly what to do, and I did some reading on the subject and listened to some talks on tape. In one of the talks the speaker made a valuable point. He said, “Whatever you do, impress upon such people that they cannot go back to their gay friends. If they do, they will resume their gay way of life.” He even gave a predictable period of time – several weeks – by the end of which a person struggling against homosexual practice who returned to the gay world would succumb again.

I told these two then that particular truth. One listened and, during the time I continued to have contact with him, he was able to reorient his life. The other ignored this advice, went back to his gay friends, and within the time period mentioned by the speaker he was back into homosexual activities. He made contact with the carrier that eroded Christian commitment and way of life, and fell victim to the disease.

Major Carriers
I suggest the following list as the most important carriers of anti-Christian values and attitudes today. It is impossible here to give each the attention it deserves, but it may be helpful at least to present them.

  1. Friends and acquaintances. Who are your friends? Who do you hang around with? These are the people who affect you.
  2. Models and authorities that a person accepts. If a football player who lives an immoral life is your son’s great hero, odds are that he is going to have an effect on him. If your authority is a college professor with anti-Christian views, or you think Dr. So-and-So is one of the world’s greatest experts on child-rearing, even though his advice does not square with a Christian approach, you will be affected by him.
  3. Entertainment. The time we spend in entertainment is not just time-off as Christians. Movies and music that glorify immorality can spread infection most quickly.
  4. The mass media. Television and recordings are crucial. [Now, of course, the internet as well.]
  5. Education. What is taught in the courses? What is given in the programs?
  6. Work settings. Our work settings, especially those with training that is designed to teach us how to do things, impart certain kinds of values to us.

Given the power of these carriers and given the anti-Christian views of life that they often carry in our increasingly secular society, it should be a pastoral priority for us to examine them closely. We need to open our eyes to how people in our care are using these carriers and how they are being affected by them. We need to help our people understand what is going on and teach them to avoid some things, control some things, counteract some things. This seems crucial in our current cultural situation.

A Blessing Disguised
I would say that if we neglect these three dynamics – environments, consistency and carriers – if we do not have a pastoral approach for dealing with these things, then the Christian way of life tends to disappear among the people we are leading, unless there are some special circumstances. This is not, however, a reason for losing hope.

Some years ago I was living in an old house in which water began to seep into the basement. We were distressed at this and called in a workman to correct the problem. After a couple of days he came upstairs and said, “You know, you’re lucky to have water in your basement.” This was puzzling. Why were we lucky to have water in the basement? The reason, he explained, was that in order to find the source of the problem he had to uncover the foundations, which were not usually exposed to view. When he did this he discovered that the mortar between the stones was crumbling. Where a hundred years ago there had been hard mortar, there was now a gravelly material. This had caused the water problem. But if the water problem had not occurred, we would not have known that the foundations were disintegrating. “If you don’t do something about it now,” the workman told us, “pretty soon there will be no mortar between your stones, you won’t have a foundation, and you won’t have a house.” So we were blessed to have water coming in the basement. It gave us a chance to save the house.

As we look around and notice “water” coming in among the Christian people – secular values and behavior – we might count it a blessing. Perhaps the Lord is telling us that we need to look more carefully at the foundations to see if all the mortar is there. If not, we need to seek his guidance and help to begin to remedy the situation.

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Steve Clark is a founder and former president of the Sword of the Spirit, a noted author of numerous books and articles, and a frequent speaker.

From Living Bulwark, August/September 2016, used with permission.

Photo: Vasily Vereshchagin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons