I do not desire to wade deeply into the politics of this year’s election season in the United States. I don’t see political action as something that will truly help people or solve the world’s problems. But the thought occurred to me the other day: what if Donald Trump had decided to start a church instead of running for president? Could the Trumpster succeed in the pastorate, as he has in politics? Trump is a businessman with a pragmatic, “do-whatever-it-takes-to-win” mentality. If he had decided to become a pastor, he might buy a beautiful building for his church, or, more likely, build a grand new one himself. He would hire experts who would tell him how to set up a church, get it running, and attract the initial congregation. He would find a way to get ordained. He would hire musicians to play whatever kind of music seemed most suitable. Every church service would be an impressive show, maybe with a steak dinner following. Experts on homiletics would write Trump’s sermons, which he would deliver with gusto. Sunday evenings might feature a concert in an outdoor amphitheater and fireworks afterward. Trump’s controversial comments on Muslims and politicians would make the news and lead people to believe that he is standing up for what is right. He would belittle pastors and churches who oppose him in order to get people to leave those churches and come to his church, which would be so much better.
With a high divorce rate among evangelicals and so much tolerance of sin, it is unlikely that most people would be bothered by Trump’s divorces, beauty pageants, casinos, and so forth. The standard of morality espoused by Trump would basically match what most people already believe and would give church members considerable freedom to live as they please. Trump’s theology would be somewhat erratic, novel, and idiosyncratic, but would likely be tolerated by many. In any case, Trump could not be voted out by the congregation, since he would own the church building. Perhaps he would offer perks for faithful members, such as free vacations at one of his resorts. Maybe he would give away raffle tickets every Sunday before the worship service, with a drawing held afterward. If the number of congregants started to decrease, he would immediately find out why and would shift course to bring them back. Big names would frequent Trump’s church to offer seminars and lead retreats. The church would have classes on financial responsibility and wealth creation, seminars on marriage and parenting, addiction recovery groups, a food pantry, and even Bible studies. Some of the teaching would seem very sound. The church would have a large counseling staff to help people work through their problems, and all of the counselors would be fully credentialed and experienced. Everything would be done first class. The youth group would take fun trips and compete for college scholarships; adults would go on cruises and take tours of the holy land. Trump’s staff would ghost-write books for him, which would make the bestseller lists. All things considered, I think if Donald Trump had decided to become a pastor instead of running for president, he would be widely regarded as a very successful pastor with a well-run church and a large following. Trump’s church might look very much like other prominent churches in the country, but with everything done bigger and better.
Many popular pastors of megachurches (and their wannabes in smaller churches) do in fact have the same pragmatic mentality as Donald Trump. I would suggest that these pastors and their followers have lost sight of what really makes a church successful. First and foremost, the church belongs to Jesus Christ, not to pastors or congregations, which means that things must be done His way, not our way. The church’s aim is to please Jesus Christ, not to build a personal empire or garner a huge following. The ends do not justify the means when it comes to church growth, if numerical growth is not the true goal of the church.
Decisions about how to do things in churches and Christian schools have now for decades been driven by pragmatic considerations about expansion and money. If starting a Saturday night service will bring in more people, then let’s do it, and let’s say that it doesn’t matter what day of the week you come to church. If having a rock band and a dance team attracts more people than having an organ and a choir, then let’s have the rock band and dance team. If most people now approve of women preaching, then let’s allow women to preach. If hosting a $100/plate dinner will raise funds for the building, then let’s have the dinner. Many other examples could be cited. The problem is that the church is not making its decisions by asking such questions as “What does God want us to do?” or “What does the Bible say we should do?” The questions driving the church’s decisions are ones such as “What will make the church grow?” and “What will bring in money?” It is time for the church to start making decisions again based solely on the Bible, and not on what people think is right or what will make a church “grow.”
There is no doubt that applying pragmatic strategies to achieve growth in a church can produce results. One reason why the Mormons have survived and expanded in spite of their patently absurd theology is because they require members go on evangelistic mission trips (two years full-time after high school) and to give ten percent of their income to the church. The Jehovah’s Witnesses require their members to do door-to-door evangelism. It is, of course, a good thing when Bible-believing Christians go on mission trips, give tithes to the church, and evangelize. However, the Bible requires that such things be done voluntarily; making them compulsory is a pragmatic shortcut to achieve church growth. Growth produced by shortcuts is always shallow and superficial, since it is not rooted in an overarching commitment to faithfulness to God and to His Word.
I may well end up voting for Donald Trump for president this fall, in spite of not agreeing with him about many things. But I would never vote for Donald Trump (or any of the other major candidates, for that matter) to be my pastor. It may be okay to vote for the least worst candidate for president (if your conscience allows you to do so), but the Bible sets forth qualifications for the pastorate that every pastor must meet. Donald Trump does not meet the biblical requirements to be a pastor, as stated in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. Of course, Trump is not a pastor and has not said that he wants to be one. But I think if he had tried to become a prominent pastor, he could have gained wide acceptance. There already are many talented, pragmatic people who have made a name for themselves in the pastorate and are widely considered to be successful pastors, who nevertheless do not even meet the basic biblical qualifications for becoming a pastor.
We need to stop measuring success by numbers and fame, and start measuring success the way God measures it—by faithfulness to His Word.
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