I recently picked up America’s God by Mark Noll and ran across an idea early in the book that struck a chord for me. Several authors have written about the decline of the position of clergy in the American culture. It was once the case, in colonial and later history right through the 20th century, that the local minister was the resident expert on nearly every issue of importance and a highly respected individual. Recent surveys show that pastors and priests no longer hold a position like that in our contemporary culture.
Most of the time, when people lament this reality, it is framed in terms of anti-intellectualism and popular perceptions of ministers picked up from scandals and televangelists. I think these analyses have a lot going for them, but Noll brought something to this table I found interesting.
He noted that local pastors were held in high esteem in large part because of the theology of early America. Because, theologically speaking, the role of pastor was a position of high calling and esteem within the body of Christ, it became a public reality that ministers were held in high esteem.
Advancing Noll’s comment to current trends in ecclesiology and theology, one of the factors that may be leading to the diminished cultural role of the pastor is the diminished role he or she plays within the church. With evangelicalism’s thirst for everything contemporary, while corporate authority structures have been allegedly “flattened,” giving more of a team atmosphere to employees, our ecclesiology is following suit. If American people want to feel empowered and have a significant role in the direction of a church, it seems evident to many that we should flatten the authority structure, thus implicitly (if not explicitly) reducing the status and role of the pastor. We are, after all, a nation of priests, aren’t we?
Is the flattening of the church structure a good thing, bad thing, or mixed bag? Has it helped lead to the relative irrelevance of pastors in the culture at large? Has this trend in evangelicalism traded an ecclesiology gleaned from Scripture for one pulled from today’s best sellers?