Why so many in organized religion no longer seek spiritual and personal guidance from their leaders.
Subscribe to the Real Truth for FREE news and analysis.Subscribe Now
Timothy Buchanan says he never consults clergy about important decisions, but it is not for lack of faith. He regularly attends a nondenominational Christian church near his home.
Mr. Buchanan, 41, is not alone. A large majority of Americans make important decisions without calling on religious leaders for advice, according to a recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The poll found three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time.
“The church we go to is quite large, and we’re relatively new there,” said Mr. Buchanan, who lives with his wife in North Carolina. “We really haven’t established a relationship with a minister there. Going to larger churches, it’s nearly impossible now to get a relationship with a clergyman or woman.”
The lack of personal connection with ministers even includes people who identify with a specific religious faith, though those most engaged with their religion are more likely to have relationships with clergy.
And while the poll found a majority of Americans still identify with a specific faith, about half overall say they want religious leaders to have little influence in their lives.
Jo King said she rarely consults with clergy members but would be moderately likely to talk to one of them about marriage, divorce or relationship issues. While she does not feel the need to regularly meet one-on-one with priests, she regularly attends services and says religion has always been “very important to me.”
“I used to consult periodically with them…when I was younger, but I rarely consult with anybody. I kind of live my life my way,” said Ms. King, 72, a Catholic from Ohio.
This poll exposes mainstream Christianity’s latest reality: many of its sheep no longer look to their shepherds for guidance.
“Religion has finally caught up with the times we live in,” some may point out.
That last statement carries more meaning than you may have ever considered. The arrival of counsel-free religion means we have landed on a historical turning point against which, ironically, Christians have been counseled before.
Pastors were known as active counselors since America’s early history. Author E. Brooks Holifield wrote in God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America (Pulpit & Pew): “For the first 150 years of the colonial period, they had significant authority both in the local cultures of the villages and towns and in the broader realms of authorship, education, and institutional leadership.”
Contrasting that time with today, he adds: “Newspapers no longer print their Sunday sermons, as they often did as recently as the late nineteenth century. The laity no longer depend on their advice about mundane matters in precisely the same way that Catholic immigrant laborers and their families in the 1890s sometimes depended on the priest for cultural knowledge, financial counsel, and access to jobs. On many matters, clergy appear to have ceded jurisdiction to physicians and psychiatrists, social workers and sociologists, scientists and the gurus of technology.”
Now all these specialists abound. Back in the day, they were few and far between, if any. The local minister was the physician, the psychiatrist, the social worker, the sociologist and the scientist. Pastors needed to possess general knowledge of a wide variety of subjects to be able to help people in need.
Even formal education in the early days was administered by religious organizations.
“The landscape of higher education in North America first began to take shape at the start of the colonial period as religious communities and individual religious leaders realized the need to bring Western education to what was for them a newly discovered land,” Encyclopedia of Education states.
“The motivation for the education varied. Some communities began schools as a means for training religious leaders. The first college, founded in Massachusetts Bay Colony, was Harvard. Evolving from a Puritan tradition now incorporated into the United Church of Christ, Harvard published a brochure in 1643, explaining the college’s purpose as ‘to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches.’”
In those days, ministers were known to be a reliable resource of general wisdom to parishioners.
As education became more available and secularized, the scope of religious leaders as general counselors diminished. According to Encyclopedia of Education, by 1881, “80 percent of the colleges in the United States were church related and private,” and by 2001, “20 percent of the colleges—approximately 980 institutions—had connection to a religious tradition.”
With more secular experts available and religion being less influential in society, counseling with a minister is no longer in demand. The current tendency to opt for never seeking counsel from clergy is unique to our time.
Various factors have contributed. Experts say the clergy sex abuse crisis confronting the Roman Catholic Church could be reducing parishioners’ trust in priests. A Pew Research Center survey found that about a quarter of U.S. Catholics said the scandal had led them to reduce their Mass attendance and their donations to the church. Some bishops have acknowledged that many Catholics are distancing themselves from the church because of the furor.
There has also been a steep rise over the past several decades in the share of Americans not identifying with a religion. A Gallup poll in 2018 shows 20 percent of Americans said they have no religion, up from only 2 percent in 1955.
At the same time, more Americans are describing religion as unimportant in their lives, and church membership and service attendance have declined. Gallup shows only one-third attended religious services within the past week, while about half did so in the mid-1950s. Among Catholics, attendance figures were roughly 40 percent in 2018, down from 75 percent in 1955.
Another reason for a decline in counsel is a widening rift between clergy and churchgoers on controversial issues.
Americans’ age, education level and religious affiliation matter greatly when it comes to their opinions on a prospective clergy member’s sexual orientation, gender, marital status or views on social issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion.
The survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that, among all Americans who identify with a specific religion, about 8 in 10 say their faith should allow women and divorced people to be clergy members and just over half say the same about homosexual men.
Here are some of the poll’s findings:
Accepting homosexual clergy: 44 percent of Americans ages 60 or over who affiliate with a religion think their faith should allow a homosexual man to become a clergy member, compared with 54 percent of those ages 45 through 59 and nearly two-thirds of those under age 45.
Ordination of women and divorcees: At least three-quarters of evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics think a woman should be able to become a clergy member in their respective faiths. Majorities across religious groups think someone who is divorced should be able to be ordained. Catholics, however, are slightly less likely than Protestants to find it acceptable.
Supporting social views of clergy: About half of Americans identifying with a religion say their faith should allow clergy members who believe that abortion should be legal, that homosexual men and women should be allowed to marry or that sex before marriage is morally acceptable. Religious Americans ages 60 or older are less likely than those younger to think clergy in their faith can include someone who believes sex before marriage is morally acceptable, 43 percent versus 59 percent, or someone who believes same-sex marriage should be legal, 38 percent versus 60 percent. Thirty-five percent of older religious Americans support their faith ordaining someone who thinks abortion should be legal, compared with 54 percent of those younger. Majorities of those who attend church monthly or less often think their faith should allow clergy members who believe that abortion should be legal, that same-sex marriage should be legal or that sex before marriage should be accepted. About a third of those who attend religious services at least twice a month think the same.
But it is not all distrust that is fueling the separation between pastor and parishioner. Another towering reason is church members feel they really do not need advice from an outside party.
For his part, Mr. Buchanan, who was quoted earlier, feels a connection to faith—he grew up in a small church and his uncle is a Baptist minister. But he is still feeling his way around where he worships. Besides the size of his current church, he feels some of his reticence to reach out to a pastor could be a reflection of the technology-focused times.
“People don’t know how to have personal communications with other folks when you need to ask questions or need to get help,” he said. “For instance, we’ve got some issues with our health insurance plan, so I spent an hour today Googling…instead of just picking up the phone and calling somebody.”
Tim O’Malley, a theology professor at Notre Dame University, said he suspects that technological self-service is among the factors contributing to infrequent contact with clergy.
“In American life, there has ultimately been a broad rejection of ‘experts’ apart from the person searching for the answer on his or her own,” Dr. O’Malley said in an email. “Think about the use of Google. You can literally Google anything. Should I have children? What career should I have? When should I make a will? How do I deal with a difficult child?
“In this sense, there has been a democratization of information based on the seeking self,” he added. “You can find the information more easily through a search engine than finding a member of a clergy.”
Dr. O’Malley, who also serves as director of education for Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, sees “a lack of trust in all sorts of institutions,” including houses of worship.
“Surely the church—the Catholic church in particular—has lost some moral authority in the last 25 years in the United States,” he said. “But it is joined by schools, newspapers, the media in general, etc.”
As ministerial counseling becomes rarer in today’s churches, worshippers are developing a kind of spiritual independence from those they may see as preachers but not counselors. This can make religion more personal—more of a “between me and God” matter—so that ministers can focus more on preaching and less on “meddling.” What could be wrong with that?
While the ability to seek answers for oneself can be helpful, it should really only be a means to an end. Not seeking spiritual counsel when needed carries a great danger. A little-understood Bible passage specifically warns against this.
Revelation 3 describes the ancient city of Laodicea whose residents and Christians had a prevailing attitude of self-sufficiency: “You say, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and know not that you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (vs. 17).
While this was certainly true for the residents who lived in Laodicea (in modern-day Turkey) nearly 2,000 years ago, this perfectly reflects society today.
The meaning of the city’s name, Laodicea, is telling in itself. Notice the Greek root words from which it is derived: Laos (“people”) and dike (“principle, decision”).
In other words, as the Bible reveals in verse 17, Laodiceans tended to trust in their ability to rule themselves, judging and deciding matters to the exclusion of any other authority.
God, the author of the Bible, warned His followers against this mindset by threatening to all those in a lukewarm condition: “I will spew you out of My mouth” (vs. 16).
The reason for God’s treatment toward those with such an attitude is their self-sufficiency keeps them from growing and getting the spiritual assistance they need from His ministers. The author of the Bible stated: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). This is because He knows that “there is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12).
The lesson from this account: Seek advice before it comes seeking you.
Ecclesiastical counseling is a bedrock of biblical Christianity. Throughout the entire Bible, faithful servants sought counsel.
The primary purpose of God establishing a ministry was for them to provide guidance. Moses was told by His father-in-law, who himself was a priest: “Hearken now unto my voice, I will give you counsel, and God shall be with you” (Ex. 18:19). Inspired by God, he instructed Moses to establish a structure of qualified leaders who would judge the matters of the people, rather than Moses wearing himself out from morning to evening counseling everyone on his own.
Later, in the kingdom of Israel, prophets counseled kings. The book of Proverbs states that “in the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (11:14).
Whole books of the New Testament are essentially letters of counsel written by the apostle Paul to address specific issues in the congregations of the Church.
Harkening back to the title of this article, think about the last time you sought your minister for advice. Perhaps you attend a church but you feel skeptical about being open with a minister there.
Yet, deep inside, you crave for someone to listen and help you sort through your challenges and structure your life in a way God desires.
Ministers are established to be “helpers of your joy” (II Cor. 1:24).
God chose to work through flesh (see Ephesians 4:11-16). He structured His Church to function within the guidance of leaders He chooses because they teach the truth of God—not their own ideas or what you might “want to hear.”
If you are serious about seeking God, He expects you to counsel with His ministry. God has bound Himself to work through human beings this way.
However, the Bible also warns of false ministers and deceivers. Sadly, these are common today. God knows that and has provided a way for you to prove the authenticity and trustworthiness of your minister and the religious organization to which you belong.
You should confide in your minister only if he brings you God’s truth about matters, not his own. For a church leader to do this, he must know God’s teachings.
The vast majority of ministers conform to the traditions and beliefs of their church’s brand of Christianity. Where their church’s beliefs divert from Scripture, the ministers must embrace and defend them—even to the extent of ignoring or intentionally explaining away plain verses.
Why? Because they have never understood the true meaning of God’s Word. They have been trained to accept—without question—whatever their church or denomination teaches.
This world’s ministers must follow the dictates of their flock—or face unemployment. Only ministers who preach smooth, non-condemning sermons keep their positions. They quote secular sources to gently admonish their congregation about acquiring some admirable character trait. But correction from God’s Word is not tolerated. The congregation will only listen to “smooth things” from the pulpit.
Clergy in this world’s denominations are more worried about pleasing people—especially those who control their payroll. They leave God out of the equation.
The book of Titus lists specific qualifications to look for in a true minister of God. The description includes being “blameless, the husband of one wife [not adulterous], having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly…not selfwilled, not soon angry, not given to wine [an alcoholic], no striker [quarrelsome], not given to filthy lucre, a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men [meaning “fond of good”], sober, just, holy, temperate; holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught…” (1:6-9).
You must look for leaders who have these biblical qualifications. You will also need to find an organization where the standard is the Bible. Such a place does exist.
To prove where it is today, read Where Is the True Church? – and Its Incredible History!
Once you find it, you can confidently seek guidance from God’s ministers.
This article contains information from The Associated Press.