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Pastor, don’t underestimate your influence

It’s greater than you can see, and your role is vital

Pastor, don’t underestimate your influence

One of the most dominant trends I hear right now is pastoral burnout. It’s one of the most common themes confronting current and prospective pastors. Between the roller-coaster of never-ceasing current events that shape the pastoral context and fatigue on dealing with repercussions from COVID, pastors are exiting vocational ministry at an alarming rate.

It may be hard to want to stay in a job that seems to bring so much stress (and sometimes little visible fruit), wondering whether the pastoral voice simply gets lost in the shuffle of so many other voices that are vying for their congregants’ attention.

A new report from an organization I respect, Neighborly Faith, has some encouraging news on this front that should provide pastors with reinvigorated clarity on just how significant their roles are: Pastors really do actually matter in shaping the worldview of their congregation, especially among young evangelicals. Where pastors may be tempted to wonder whether their messages are making measurable impact, the report argues that it is.

Before looking more closely at a few of the findings, let me state my longstanding concern about how the label “evangelical” is used in polls. Too often the term is loosely defined. Neighborly Faith’s description of what counts as an evangelical is better than most surveys I read, but that does not mean I’m completely satisfied with their definition. We must evaluate the findings of the poll on its own terms, regardless of whatever differences we may have with polling methodology.

Looking at the figures from the report, what immediately jumps out is how dramatically influential pastors are in shaping their congregant’s views on social issues and civic engagement. This is especially true when it comes to controversial issues in society around sexual ethics and abortion. This suggests, to me at least, that young Christians are starved for voices who are willing to speak clearly.

Such influence ought to be expected, given the weekly routine of sitting under a pastor’s teaching. While a pastor may wonder whether a given sermon was fruitful, the findings of this report show that over the long-haul, the Word bears fruit. The findings of the report run counter to the belief that celebrity Christians are more influential than your average local church pastor. They aren’t.

Compared to other self-identified Christians who may not have evangelical convictions, the report finds that “Evangelical young adults were the only group in the study to select religious texts and religious leaders as the greatest sources of influence about political issues and community engagement in their lives.” Such a finding reflects the high value that evangelicals place on regularly gathering with their local congregation and a higher view of Scripture compared to non-evangelicals.

The findings of the report run counter to the belief that celebrity Christians are more influential than your average local church pastor. They aren’t.

The report goes on to note that “young Evangelicals are more influenced by their religious leaders in every domain of life. For example, 50 percent of evangelicals reported that their leaders influence their own religious opinions/decisions quite a bit or a great deal, compared to 26 percent of other Christians and 31 percent of those of other faiths.” Yet again we see the unique role that pastors play in shaping their congregation.

All of this seems to indicate that regular gathering and regular exposure to the Word of God are essential pillars to the Christian worldview. Again, that should not be surprising. But it is nonetheless helpful to see these realities reflected in a poll.

Interestingly, while there is a marked difference in how evangelical pastors influence young evangelicals compared to other religious leaders, the report argues that this does not translate into creating a highly motivated activist class of evangelicals. This defies common caricatures of evangelicalism as merely a political identifier.

There is one other area worth discussing from the survey that should bring encouragement to pastors. Not only are evangelical Christians listening to their leaders, it’s resulting in an increased awareness and participation in the civic arena. According to the report, “Evangelical and born-again young adults are more likely to agree that civic engagement activities are important than other Christians and those of other religions.”

We live in a very cynical moment where howls of “Christian Nationalism” and “theocracy” follow the idea of Christians getting involved politically. No doubt there are problematic and excessive ways of getting involved, but Neighborly Faith’s report offers a portrait of evangelical Christians who are demonstrating the fruits of democratic virtues necessary for self-government. Are evangelicals perfect citizens? Of course not. But the report indicates that Christians are exemplary citizens when it comes to civic engagement.

If anything, the report is a vindication of the New Testament’s teaching on ecclesiology: The fact that pastors are influential reflects God’s design for why He gave us pastors to begin with—for the building up of righteousness and sanctification.

Pastors, we know you all are weary and worn down from the last few years of cultural chaos. But we need you to equip us and administer the undiluted Word of God, not simply for the sake of our own obedience, but for the cause of loving our neighbor and our nation as well.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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