The Shrinking Ministry
by Rick Shrader
There have been a number of articles, books, and statistics shared recently that have highlighted the fact that the number of pastors, missionaries, and full-time Christian workers is declining in the 21st century. Churches find it difficult to locate or call new ministers. Mission agencies report that their numbers are shrinking every year. Schools at all levels are smaller with fewer students in each one. George Barna published an article titled, “The Aging of America’s Pastors” in which he showed that there are more pastors over the age of 65 than under the age of 40. In 1968 55% of pastors were under 45 years old, but by 2017 only 22% were under 45.
In the Spring ’22 edition of The Baptist Bulletin, Mel & Kristi Walker gave 6 reasons for the decline including the price of theological education, Covid burnout, inward-focused churches, a lack of motivation, family opposition to ministry, and the difficulty of ministry. In the Summer issue, Brandon Crawford also gave 6 reasons adding the demographic challenge of waning veterans and veteran benefits, and the ecclesiastical challenge of smaller churches with smaller salaries and opportunities. Each of these articles referenced Woodrow Kroll’s 2002 book, The Vanishing Ministry in the 21st Century (the 1991 edition was about the 20th century). After reading the book, I was impressed by Kroll’s insight and predictions of a vanishing ministry from so many years ago. During these years Kroll was president and teacher of Back to the Bible Radio Program and former president of Practical Bible College (now Davis College, Binghamton, NY). Kroll lays much of the blame on the increasing secularization of Bible colleges, the lack of emphasis for commitment at Christian schools, and the “upward mobility” of Christian families which discourages youth from ministry.
I found these and other concerns about the shrinking ministry very helpful, insightful, and concerning. I am 72 years old and have been in ministry for about 50 years. When I entered Bible college in 1968, all Bible colleges were full with not enough housing and classroom space to meet the need. When I entered seminary in 1972, there were 100 male students (plus 2 girls, one of whom I was fortunate to marry) of which the great majority entered full-time ministry. As a seminary student there were many opportunities to serve in local churches and I served as a youth pastor and interim pastor during those early years. Throughout my years of ministry I have been privileged to teach in Bible colleges and serve on Bible college and seminary boards. I have been pastoring since 1985. I’m simply saying that my generation has seen a lot come and go. I want to add a few of my own observations about the problem of shrinking ministry and then join these men and others with some possible solutions.
What are some reasons? 1) The cost of college or seminary education is an obvious deterrent to ministry but it also is unavoidable in the 21st century. Nevertheless, if a student leaves his education years with huge debt, it is very difficult or impossible to live on a minister’s salary, especially as a new or young pastor. Associate positions are even more difficult to afford. 2) The rise of para-church (and related) ministries has pulled many of our potential ministers away from local church work to greener grass in other places. We seldom get these workers back into our local church ministries. 3) I also think that the dissolving of our denominational names and the weakening of our fellowship and associational ties causes many of our men to be pulled away from our churches. As a young man myself I bristled at the feeling of being a cog in a fellowship machine. Then I realized that Sunday schools, youth groups, youth camps, Bible colleges, seminaries, mission agencies, church planters, all complete a necessary cycle for keeping like-minded ministry going. As these connections became looser, schools, churches, and mission agencies have suffered. 4) I agree that the Covid years have hurt churches and schools. The necessity of live-streaming and zooming has resulted in less in-church attendance in-class enrollment. Our services and schools may be available to people and students all over the world (and praise the Lord for it!) but those good men are not available to our churches or mission boards. 5) Kroll has a chapter called “WAGAPS School Teachers.” That stands for “We’re As Good As Public Schools.” He even says, “In his effort to provide a superior education, the WAGAPS Christian school teacher drives his students as far from life-time ministry as possible.” Kroll’s point is that many times our schools (and I would add our churches) have tried so hard to keep up with the cultural Joneses that we have unwittingly pushed our young people away from ministry which appears less acceptable. 6) Lastly, I will combine a few concerns. Pastors, teachers, and church parents have not raised up a generation for ministry. Our own children may be discouraged from ministry; our associates and assistants do not follow through into further ministry; we have often cursed our own cause to the point that young men do not want our conservative churches; and we have pushed an “upward mobility” mindset to the point that young people either cannot or will not “consider the cost” of ministry. I only add these few possible reasons for a shrinking ministry to the observations of others.
Are there solutions? Taking the four sources I’ve mentioned, there are some 19-20 “reasons” (many overlapped) given for the decline. Also, from these sources there are some 17-18 “solutions” offered. Space does not allow me to list them but they are easily accessible. I will add a few of my own. 1) I concur with the need often mentioned for better mentoring of young men and more intentional presenting of the “call” of God to ministry and the “surrender” of a man to God’s call. Kroll added the “burning of the bridge” behind a man who answers God’s call. This is a proper emphasis for youth camps and mission trips, but why not for our pulpits and classrooms as well? 2) With so many churches on the verge of closing or giving up, I believe we need to be more open to accepting men of varying educational backgrounds for varying levels of ministry opportunities, even godly and intelligent laymen. There are many churches and ministries where a seminary education is necessary, but there are many ministries where college level or institute level preparation would be welcomed. After all, most of our theological schools started as Bible institutes (including Spurgeon’s and Moody’s) when other schools could not supply the need and then they grew into their current status. Today, a young man accepting a position in a needy church can easily further his education online while gaining valuable experience. 3) We have many good and qualified men serving in associate roles who could and should move on to leadership roles. I realize there are many obstacles for such a man and his family including finances and location, but the churches have needs and these men are able to fill those needs. I know of single men and women who have moved to far-off locations just to find a church to which they could be of some help—and they are warmly welcomed. 4) There are many small rural churches that are being ignored by young men due to various reasons. Perhaps it would require a by-vocational situation for a while (not always) and would bring little or no personal recognition. Perhaps a man would have to be more traditional than he would like. I believe these churches afford a great place to learn to preach, administrate, love people, marry them and bury them. Isn’t that ministry? In addition, these situations allow a man to study, grow, even continue his education and these churches would love to have them. 5) All of our fundamental and conservative churches and ministries need to re-evaluate where we came from and why we are here. The church at Ephesus was scolded by Jesus for leaving her first love. The solution was to remember, repent, redo, or else be removed (Rev 2:5). There was no more strategic church in the first century than Ephesus. However, in 30 years, with such leadership as Paul, Timothy, and John, it had lost its way and needed to go back to the basics. The pull from culture today is worse than it was then. Churches and movements often lose their way in a generation or two. Perhaps it is time for us to remember where we came from, repent of where we are headed, and redo our purpose before we are removed due to ineffectiveness. Our ministry may be shrinking and the laborers few, yet the fields are still white unto harvest. Ministry is not a career opportunity nor a path to success. It is service. Our rewards come in the next life. There are still plenty of places for service for the one with the servant’s heart.