Myth Busters. Myth #2: Church Attendance is Dropping Because Ministers Do Not Give Sufficient Priority to Their Ability to Relate to People

To clear any possible misunderstandings, I will state right away that the ability to relate to people is essential for ministry.  I do not intend to debate that.  Rather, I want to make a couple of points.  First, even though this ability is necessary, it is not sufficient for successful ministry.  I think this is obvious, and I will not belabor this point.  Second, I believe that Christian ministers by and large do not lack this ability. The fact that church attendance is dropping clearly indicates that people have a problem relating to the church.  However, this problem does not result from ministers either lacking relational skills or not making relating to people their priority.  Consequently, in our search for reasons why church attendance is dropping we should look elsewhere.

The example of Augustine of Hippo is instructive.  Augustine was one of the most influential ministers in the history of Christianity.  He was also a great mentor.  According to Edward Smither, Augustine’s mentoring forms included clerical monastery, letters, books, church councils and personal visits.  Smither says that Augustine’s surviving letters total 252.  In these letters Augustine addressed a number of theological and exegetical issues as well as matters of practical ministry, spiritual growth and general perspective on ministry.  His books were mostly theological, exegetical and apologetic. 1 Curiously enough, Augustine hardly, if ever, exhorts those he mentors that they should be able to relate to people.  To be sure, Augustine was quite an outgoing and relational person with multiple connections and friends, and if he were not, he would probably not impact subsequent generations of Christians in the way he did.  Moreover, he understood the importance of the ability to relate to people, as is evidenced by, among other things, the communal nature of his mentoring approach. However, rather than singling this ability out as a major topic for his writings, he chose to focus on other things as vital for church health.  In other words, Augustine did not explicitly focus on the ability to relate to people.  He seems to have taken it for granted that those whom he mentored already had this ability to the extent they needed it, and that the mentoring approach he implemented would ensure that this continues.

Augustine’s letters made me think about the nearly twenty years I spent in seminaries, both as a student and a professor.  During those years I met a multitude of people of many different backgrounds.  These women and men hailed from North and South Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia.  Their ages ranged from early twenties to sixties.  They were involved in a wide variety of ministries: senior pastorates, youth ministries, ministries of music, immigration resettlement and poverty relief, to name just a few.  They held a wide variety of theological views, from conservative evangelical theology to liberation theology.  Despite this diversity, the vast majority of people I met shared one trait: they were outgoing and relational.  I have met a few deep introverts, but they were an endangered species.  It is not difficult to understand why: the merciless process of a post-seminary job search tends to weed them out.  These days churches expect their ministers to be effective managers, engaging preachers and sympathetic caregivers.  All of these qualities necessarily involve significant relational skills.  If a candidate does not have these skills, her or his employment prospects are dim.  For this reason, the ability to relate to people was stressed in every practical ministry class I took as a student and was a topic of many conversations students had, both with professors and each other.

There are reasons for declining attendance in mainline and evangelical churches. That ministers do not give sufficient priority to their ability to relate to people is not one of them.  The ability to relate to people is certainly essential, but, given my experience in seminaries and churches, I find it difficult to buy the notion that our ministers give a low priority to their ability to relate to people.  So, we may be better served by focusing on other issues, just like Augustine did.  As long as the discourse about reasons for declining church attendance revolves around the ability to relate to people and worship style, the real reasons behind this lamentable tendency will remain unexplored.

by: Dr. Andrey V. Shirin

1 Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2008) pp. 134 – 212.

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